After 15 years, Diversity Thrift loses an iconic member of their team
At 40-years-old, Diversity Thrift‘s Senior Manager Darren Schledt, is ready to move on. The man many of us remember smiling behind the counter, driving the thrift store’s big white truck, or helping us to pick out some long or short term living room accessory is moving back to be closer to his folks and figure out what’s next.
Schledt’s presence stood out to many of us for a number of reasons. Beyond the smile, he was an out and proud gay deaf man – but these two portions of his live hardly define him.
Born in Baton Rouge, LA, Schledt grew up without the ability to hear from having a rare genetic disorder, Waardenburg Syndrome. This condition not only left him without his hearing, he was also born with different color eyes. His eyes shifted to a single color, a vibrant brown, but his hearing never developed.
His parents learned American Sign Language, his primary form of communication, and his mother even took a job as an interpreter.
Despite what you’d imagine about his Southern upbringing, his parents, both Baptists, were supportive about his sexuality. He never really dated in high school, but he remembered bringing a boy he was interested in home when he was 17.
“I introduced him as friend, but he went in other room, my mom and dad said to me, ‘he’s so cute. is he your boyfriend?’ I was like….. yeah. oh. he’s so cute and nice,” he said.
He’d had gay friends in high school as well, and he volunteered with local theatre groups that were often packed with LGBTQ folks. I was surprised to hear him talk about how gay-friendly Baton Rouge was - Schledt said he had the theatre community, but there were also about five gay bars in town growing up.
Schledt said he knew he was gay for as long as he could remember, but he didn’t really fully embrace it until he was in college at Gallaudet University, the nation’s leading college for the deaf and hard of hearing.
He really came out as gay while in school there, and it didn’t take long for his friends and family to hear the rumors back home. He said a lot had changed from when he grew up to then, and he found acceptance not only in the traditionally liberal DC area, but also back home in LA.
He majored in art, a passion he hopes to practice more after leaving Diversity. He graduated before moving to Richmond to be closer to his folks who’d since moved here after falling in love with the area years ago.
Schledt’s passion, specifically painting and sculpture, is something he said runs in his family. “We all have different talents and skills in many areas,” he said about how he may have come to share their love.
“I do not think about anything when I paint or sculpt,” he said. “I clear my head up. i just let my hands flow as they want to.”
I found the connection between letting his hands communicate with paint similar to how he has his hands communicate for him with everyone else. He kind of laughed at the connection and said he prefers to let the viewer come up with their own interpretation of his work.
“I never title my art work because I want people to see what they see and think,” he said.
He started at Diversity Thrift 15 years ago, and while he said he remembered antiquing with his grandmother when he was growing up, he didn’t end up getting into thrifting until he started up at the new gig.
Prior to that he’d worked at a child care center for a few years, but he preferred the freedom the thrift store allowed; “I wanted to explore more. I wanted to move on,” he said.
He moved quickly through the ranks, and before long he was senior manager for the entire store. In that post he’s seen a number of changes unfold for an operation many of us hold dear.
“We are still growing,” he said. “We started small but now we have expanded. We now welcome all communities to use our space. We support each other very much.”
His priority has always been happy customers, and he takes joy in watching folks’ faces light up when they find a particularly unique item suited just for them.
“It is like I’m wrapping gifts for them,” he said. “They come and unwrap the gifts and see what they get.”
Schledt said he’s since become a bit of a thrift-store snob, finding himself grateful every time he visits other stores. “Thanks god my store is better than theirs,” he joked.
But thrift stores are the last thing on his mind now. Schledt’s last day is this Friday and after that he plans to return to his roots, back in Baton Rouge, where he can paint and pursue his favorite activities like kayaking and paddle boarding while being closer to family.
“My grandmother is 92-years-old,” he said. “We’ll be so happy we can go shopping in french quarter together again, and go to art galleries.”
Bill Harrison, the President & Executive Director of Diversity Richmond which oversees the thrift store, called Schledt the backbone of Diversity Thrift.
“His dedication to our mission and his concern for our customers and staff has helped us grow into one of the largest and most popular thrift stores in the area,” Harrison said. “We are hanging a picture of Darren in the store as a reminder of him, not that we need one. He will always be a part of Diversity Richmond and will remain in the hearts of so many people who he has touched over the years.”
Head on out to Diversity before Friday for your last chance to send Schledt off.
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